The last time Nintendo released a console there was no such thing as the iPhone. The Wii was launched in November 2006, and since then Apple has heralded a smartphone and tablet revolution. There have been five generations of iPhones, three generations of iPads, and multitudinous Android smartphones and tablets.
These have broken radical new ground in gaming demographics, and subsequently brought in sweeping changes to the development industry. Game consoles must have the dubious honour of being the slowest-iterating consumer hardware products in the world. As a result, consumers expect any next generation of any console to be a truly drastic improvement on the former, and if those expectations aren’t met, it could spell financial doom for the manufacturer, just as it did for Sega.
Unsurprisingly then, the impending release of Nintendo’s Wii U is cause for the world’s gamers to collectively hold their breath. Gameplanet spoke with Nintendo’s Katsuya Eguchi, the mind behind numerous high profile Nintendo titles such as Wii Sports, Animal Crossing, Star Fox and Yoshi’s Story, and more importantly, hardware producer on the Wii U.
Hardware guru by day, and mild-mannered fun-park aficionado by night, Eguchi-san is uniquely qualified to present Nintendo’s vision for the Wii U. He is one of the passionate developers working to keep the massive Japanese company at the top of the sales charts.
After all, the Nintendo Wii is arguably the most successful current gaming console. Its worldwide sales figures exceed its nearest competitors by at least 30 million, a startling lead due in no small part to its low price point, critically and commercially successful first-party titles and Nintendo's focus on casual gaming and novelty experiences - success now being mimicked on phones and tablets.
Despite this, there are a number of gaps in its otherwise successful campaign. Nintendo has lost some of the dedicated gaming market to Sony and Microsoft, who boast a multitude of high profile third-party titles, often featuring more mature themes.
None of this has been lost on Eguchi. Working his way up from a graphics programmer and level designer, he created the incredibly popular Animal Crossing franchise; one of the earlier efforts to mainstream casual gaming on consoles. Now, as the head of hardware on Nintendo's upcoming Wii U console, he also leads its flagship launch title, NintendoLand.
But Eguchi will forever be lauded for his work on one of Nintendo's biggest successes, Super Mario Bros 3, nearly a quarter of a century ago:
"It ended becoming a really big game. But I wasn't really thinking about that when I was working on it. My job was to draw level maps by hand. I was so focused on making the game and creating these fun levels, I didn't really think at the time about what a big game I was working on – it was more having fun making it."
By the early ‘90s, Eguchi was directing and designing his own games, including Star Fox and Yoshi’s Story. Solely dedicating himself to the Animal Crossing franchise for a number of years, Eguchi then designed Wii Sports, the bundled launch title for the original Wii.
"Wii Sports was very fun, but there was a desire to have experiences […] that had a bit more depth or longevity to them," says Eguchi. "Something that more passionate game fans might be able to sink their teeth into a little bit more."
NintendoLand is looking to distance itself from its predecessor’s simplicity, as well as providing a broader variety of experiences. This is all tied together with the concept of a theme park.
"I really love going to smaller scale theme parks, even carnival, old-style theme parks," continues Eguchi. "Within it there are these miniature worlds that you can dive into for just a short period of time and lose yourself in the style and the atmosphere of that particular world."
NintendoLand brings together classic Nintendo characters such as Luigi, Donkey Kong and Eguchi's own Animal Crossing, for a series of mini-games that show off the capabilities of the Wii U.
Many of these games fall somewhere on the spectrum between casual gaming, and classic Nintendo or arcade gaming.
Some, such as the throwing star game Takamaru’s Ninja Castle, are motion oriented and clearly designed to demonstrate creative integration of the unique controller, as well aiding gamers to familiarise themselves with its many uses.
Indeed, by examining the Wii U's new GamePad controller, it's easy to identify the kinds of novelty elements that traditionally set Nintendo apart from its competitors. The controller features an embedded touchscreen, not unlike the Nintendo DS. Its touch sensitivity is definitely a big selling point for a number of games, just as motion control was for the Wii.
"When we made Wii, we were really focused on making it very clear to the user what was different about the system. Focusing on these games that relied on some kind of motion without getting too complicated, because it was such a new concept."
With these concepts now firmly established in the market, it appears Eguchi is free to explore more interesting applications of Nintendo’s technology.
Despite paving the way with these ideas, Eguchi acknowledges growing competition and the limitations of the original system.
“At the time, other platforms were pushing HD," notes Eguchi. "It was a new development in the industry. Developers are passionate about pushing the next big thing. It was hard to get a lot of game creators to aggressively push games for our platform and get really excited about developing when they were chasing other things.”
Aside from increasing its specs (although its actual performance numbers are obfuscated) a big change in development is the new Pro controller for the Wii U, one designed for gaming experiences more akin to those on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.
“Adding a Pro controller may make it easier for multi-platform games to come out on the system,” says Eguchi. “Wii remotes don't have things like analog sticks. To make it as easy as possible to enjoy certain multiplayer experiences it was important to have that Pro controller.”
“We're all gamers as well and we appreciate the interest of those [hardcore] gamers, and we don't want them to feel left out, so we're making big strides and changes in that area.”
Over the course of this generation, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have become living room media centres, and with the Wii U, Nintendo intends to challenge Microsoft and Sony’s dominance.
For Eguchi it comes back to one question:
“How do we make things that people do in everyday life more simple or more enjoyable?”
The new battle for primacy in the living room is also likely to put Nintendo into competition with companies such as Apple in the near future. Even so, Eguchi doesn’t believe this calls for a radical new strategy from Nintendo:
"From long ago, Nintendo has always been about creating entertainment and surprising customers. One thing that has changed is the scale of the company and the scope of everything we do."
"What we want to achieve as a company has not changed."